Winter and Wildlife
Winter can be a tough time of year for much of our British wildlife as food is in short supply and the days become shorter. However, as the leaves have fallen from the trees and hedgerows it can make it easier for wildlife watchers to spot birds and to look for tracks and signs left by animals.
This year the winter solstice, based on the astronomical seasons, is on the 21st of December. This marks, in the northern hemisphere, the longest night and the shortest day. This can cause challenges to wildlife as the short days make finding enough food difficult. After the winter solstice the days get longer though the coldest winter weather and highest chance of snow is often in January and February.
Top 5 Things To Look Out For This Winter
1. Mammal Tracks and Trails
The arrival of snow brings with it the perfect opportunity to study animal tracks for species including deer, fox, badger and otter. Even without snow, winter is the best season for mammal tracking as there is less foliage around to hide tracks and plenty of softer, muddy ground to create tracks. This will provide anybody with plenty of opportunity to practise their tracking skills.
2. Winter Wildfowl
There are two reasons why winter is the best season to watch ducks, geese and swans. Large numbers of these species arrive for the winter months and the colours of the drakes are the brightest at this time of year. It is also the season for large flocks of migratory geese to arrive and the best time to see the less common ducks such as goosander, pintail and long tailed duck.
3. Bird Watching
In winter, many birds will roost together in numbers for safety and warmth. For example starlings can be seen in large numbers and create a wildlife spectacle called a murmuration. This is where the flock will twist and turn in the air at sunset just before they settle into a roost for the night. Other species that gather in communal roosts include rooks, jackdaws, ravens and carrion crows.
Winter visitors include redwings and fieldfares that will often travel in flocks of over 100 and feed together in fields and hedgerows. Wrens and wagtails may also gather in numbers to roost together for warmth. There are many nature reserves which help out birds over winter by setting up roosts; it may be worth checking these out to see roosting rare birds such as the common crane. Some nature reserves will have set up specific raptor roosts on the coast and on heathlands where you can see hen harriers, merlins and marsh harriers flying in to their night time roosts.
The best time to spot and track a bird roost is just before sunset where you will see birds flying in the same direction.
4. Listen Out for Owls and Woodpeckers
Tawny owls and woodpeckers both start their mating behaviours in winter and are therefore very noisy with their courtship rituals. Tawny owls will have the nosiest hooting in December whereas the great spotted woodpecker will start their loud drumming around January. Take a listen and find who you can hear!
5. Winter Greenery!
Holly, ivy and mistletoe are all winter evergreens that can be seen on the dreariest of winter days. With holly, only the female bushes will provide red berries which are traditionally used for Christmas decorations. Other species include mistletoe which is an obligate parasitic plant and seen as a symbol of fertility. Ivy, despite being common, is very good for wildlife because of the black berries that are available in late winter.
Top 5 Things To Do This Winter
Birds, especially small birds, struggle over winter to find food which can have negative effects on their breeding success in the spring. Feeding the birds over winter will help these creatures survive the harsh conditions and therefore continue breeding in the upcoming spring. You can make your own bird feeder or you can buy one, either way, feeding them will make a huge difference in their survival. Fat balls are a great source of food during the winter and also provide seeds such as sunflower seeds which will be enjoyed by blue tits, great tits, green finches and coal tits. Remember to place these feeders in safe locations where domestic animals cannot reach. You could even put the feeders near a house window so you can enjoy some bird watching from inside the warmth of your house!
2. Go on a Snowdrop Walk
Delicate snowdrops begin cropping up under trees, on roadsides and in gardens in February. Luckily there are often organised snow drop walks as they appear as a carpet throughout woodlands.
3. Bird Watch
Many Wildlife Trusts will have wetland nature reserves which are great for spotting wildfowl such as ducks, geese and swans. In January and February drakes will be displaying their bright colours and bobbing their heads whilst calling loudly which is a great for wildlife watchers.
4. Build a Nest-box
Putting up a bird nest box during winter is a great idea, this way the bird box will be ready to go for when the birds start looking for nesting opportunities during the spring. Blue tits and great tits will start to look for nesting sites as early as the end of winter. Different birds require different types of nest boxes so it is always useful to do an information search regarding the shape and size before you start building. If you need any creative ideas for nest boxes you could also get involved during national next box week which is usually around the 15th of February.
5. Plant a Tree or Two
Tree planting is best done over winter when the ground is not frozen over. It is best to choose trees with fruits and berries so that birds, dormice and other creatures can feed on them in winter and hopefully nest there too as the spring nears. Species that are incredibly useful to wildlife include holly, hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan.
With plenty of things to be creating, seeing and listening out for this winter, it is definitely worth braving the chilly days and frosty mornings.
Remember that it is still possible to undertake a range of ecology surveys during the winter months. Click here to find out more or check out our survey calendar to see when you can start planning your surveys this year.
Why not attend one of our ecology courses?